There are two forms of organizing a state’s political institutions as a democracy. The more common one is the parliamentary system and the other, which exists in the United States, and by extension in Puerto Rico, is the presidential system.

In the parliamentary system, general elections are held to choose the members of parliament, who are the political representatives of the citizens. There is no direct election of the country’s main executive. Once parliament is constituted, it designates, through a vote of its members, a leader of the executive branch and its agencies. In other words, once the general election has taken place, various groups in parliament form agreements among themselves to make up a majority of the votes needed to form a government. Although the government leaders in the executive branch are also members of parliament, the national constitution requires the person chosen to administer the state to respect the prerogatives of both bodies under the concept of separation of powers. The parliament legislates and the government administrates. This power of parliament to designate the executive makes it possible that on occasion the party with the most votes will not obtain control of the government because two or more parties, each one of them with less votes than the leading party, will come together to form a parliamentary majority. In these systems, the institution of parliament is the center of politics, even though the executive, once designated by parliament, exercises his administrative functions autonomously.

The presidential system, on the other hand, has separate elections for the legislative and executive, although they may take place simultaneously (as is the case in Puerto Rico). Political parties nominate their candidates for president (governor, in the case of Puerto Rico) and the voters directly choose the candidate they prefer, independent of the vote for candidates for legislative positions. The legislature, therefore, has no role in designating the executive, so there is no need to come to agreements with other parties to form a government. One of the direct effects of the presidential system is that it makes small political parties ineffective, because they do not have the opportunity to form alliances with other parties and thereby have influence over state policies. Additionally, the current electoral law in Puerto Rico, although it does not prohibit the creation of new parties, makes it extremely difficult to register them and keep them going. The result is that they cannot create alliances after the elections (as in a parliamentary system) and thus the small political parties tend to disappear from the electoral scene as the social and ideological sectors they represent are absorbed by the main parties, the only ones capable of winning the election for the executive. For these reasons, presidential systems tend to have two political parties. In Puerto Rico, the only reason there are three political parties is because of the particular issue of political status. Even still, the Puerto Rican electoral scene, following the logic of presidential systems, is ever more centered around the two main political parties.

The case of Switzerland represents an example of the parliamentary system. In this pluralist country, where four cultures coexist in a long tradition of autonomous localities, the parliament, elected every six years by universal suffrage, chooses an executive council of six members, which must include representatives of the country’s four linguistic groups. Additionally, no canton (the name of the 21 federated units) can have more than one representative on the council. The six members of the council rotate the presidency of the federation and each one occupies the presidency for a one-year term. This particular governmental structure is recognized as especially democratic because it prevents the development of autocratic power in the executive branch. Writer Jorge Luis Borges, when asked why Switzerland was his favorite country, answered, “because nobody knows the president’s name.”

By comparison, the United States is the most emblematic example of the presidential system. There, the voters elect the president, not directly, but through a complex system of electoral colleges organized by the states. There have been cases in the past, such as the election of 2000, when one candidate obtained the majority of the popular vote but was not elected because the other candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes.

The origin of the presidential system in the United States, historians agree, dates to the years when the country was founded in the late 18th century and democratic ethics were just beginning to become dominant in the Western world. In those times, there were fears among the dominant classes in the United States that giving Congress the same powers as the British Parliament would make that institution too powerful, with negative effects on the authority of the executive power, leaving the executive incapable of properly governing the new federation. This authoritarian element was based on a general recognition of how the excesses of the parliamentary revolution in Britain in the prior century, despite the obvious contributions to the advance of democracy, had negatively affected the kingdom’s economic and social stability. The founders of the United States chose a constitutional foundation for the state whose objective was to create an executive power that would not be subordinate to the Congress. A little more than two centuries later, the enormous power acquired by the presidency and the central government has reined in many Congressional prerogatives, which led to the coining of the term “imperial presidency.”

Another direct effect of the presidential system is that political choices in the United States have been reduced to two parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, with occasional participation of other small parties that are not a true electoral option. Any ideological position or interest group that does not fit into the framework of the two political parties therefore has no place in electoral battles.

In Puerto Rico, which adopted the U.S. presidential system, there has also been a continual increase in the powers of the governor, in comparison to the Legislative Assembly. This power increases as the political parties, led by the candidates for governor, expand their control over the legislative representatives, backed by a political culture that continues to show deeply authoritarian characteristics. It is notable that one of the arguments that the main political parties use to oppose changing the legislature to a unicameral (one house) form is that it would give the president of that house enough political and symbolic power to challenge the authority of the governor. Given the authoritarian governments of today, this option is not being considered.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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